Library Strategy

August 25, 2015 by

I’ve avoided writing about strategy for a long time. In large part that’s because the words “strategy” and “strategic” are so over-used these days. In the Special Libraries Association, where I focus a lot of my attention, it seems sometimes like they show up in every other sentence. There was even a proposal to rename the association as the Association of Strategic Knowledge Professionals a few years ago. I didn’t get it — I could never figure out what was wrong with being a tactical knowledge professional. “Strategic” seems to have become synonymous with “valuable” or “worthwhile” or “successful”, and that’s wrong.

But my thinking was refreshed recently by a chain of readings that sent me back to one of the gold sources on strategy, Michael Porter’s 1996 Harvard Business Review article, “What Is Strategy?” Here’s what Porter has to say (HBR, Nov/Dec 1996, p. 68): “Strategy is the creation of a unique and valuable position involving a different set of activities.” And (p. 75) “Strategy is creating fit among a company’s activities. The success of a strategy depends on doing many things well — not just a few — and integrating among them.”

Those statements provide a framework for understanding the basic task for libraries and librarians today, and the role of embedded librarianship.

For decades, if not centuries, librarians had a “valuable position” based on the integration of a set of activities focused on acquiring information resources and making them available — collections and access. Our position was unique. We had no competition. Then came the revolution of the 1990s, which is still underway. Many types of information became readily and cheaply available from a variety of sources. The position of librarians that was built on collections and access was no longer unique and valuable. (Yes, there are exceptions, as well as different rates of change in different sectors.)

However, the revolution in information ubiquity brought along with it new problems, including problems of attention, analysis, and interpretation. Librarians actually have a number of competencies that can be combined with new ones to form a new set of integrated activities as the basis of a new “unique and valuable” position — a new strategy — that addresses these new problems.

I do not think that embedded librarianship is the new strategy. In some situations it could be. But in others, it is an essential component of the strategy: a subset, made up of a number of integrated activities itself and in turn integrating with other activities, to establish a new unique and valuable position for librarians.

One more thing. Porter also acknowledges that “Operational effectiveness and strategy are both necessary to superior performance”. (p. 61) So it’s okay to be tactical too.

Is Knowledge Power?

August 12, 2015 by

You can’t get through a course of study in librarianship without hearing the adage “knowledge is power” or its variant “information is power”. It’s often repeated but rarely examined, though a few cynics have asked why, if it’s true, librarians are not running the world.

Well, a current news story gives us a fresh opportunity to examine the validity of that old saying. The New York Times version is headlined “Nine Charged in Insider Trading Case Tied to Hackers” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/business/dealbook/insider-trading-sec-hacking-case.html?_r=0 ) According to the story, the scheme involved breaking into the computer systems of news distributors like PR Newswire and Business Wire, getting advance access to press releases, and trading on the information in advance of its becoming public. The Times says the scheme yielded over $100 million — pretty powerful.

Yet there’s nothing exotic about the information the hackers obtained — millions (billions) of us have access to the same news on the web and our favorite digital library resources. We have the same information the hackers had. But they had a few things the rest of us lacked: timing (they got it first), context (they knew what the news meant), ability to act (they had the mechanisms to trade on the information), and motivation to act (they were willing to take the risks — in this case legal — to use the information).

So I think this story is yet another reminder that knowledge, or information, alone is not power. The value of information is not inherent in the information by itself. And if librarians want to make a difference (what are power and influence after all but “making a difference”) then we cannot just deal with information in isolation — we have to be engaged in the use of the information: timing, context, ability, and motivation to act.

While you’re doing that, though, just keep your ethics with you at all times!

Words of Wisdom

July 8, 2015 by

I’ve just been reading the Dec. 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review, and points made in 2 of the articles really resonated with my thinking about embedded librarianship.

Advice in the article “Why Corporate Functions Stumble”, by Kunisch, Muller-Stewens, and Campbell, reads like a primer for librarians and knowledge managers (who are, after all, a corporate function): start small, focus on quick wins, don’t try to do everything all at once, etc. But my favorite sentence is this: “Managers who see themselves as functional professionals and don’t feel a need to fully understand the company’s divisions are guaranteed to antagonize business units.” Just substitute “librarians” for “managers”.

That’s followed by Keith Ferrazzi’s “Getting Virtual Teams Right”. Many embedded librarians end up on cross-functional teams, virtual or not, and the role can feel uncomfortable, especially for those new to it. Ferrazzi gives good advice, targeted to team leaders, on how to make virtual teams work. The same advice is useful for any team member on what to look for in a well-led team, and maybe some suggestions to make to your team lead too!

Over and over, articles like these have convinced me that we are not engaged in anything unique when we practice embedded librarianship — we are going through experiences that are common to other organizational functions as well, and we can gain a lot by applying the lessons from these other functions to our own practice.

Embedded Librarianship News Updates

May 29, 2015 by

I have two exciting news items to report:

First, I’ll be presenting a webinar for the Library Leadership and Management Association (LLAMA) next Wednesday, June 3, at 2:30 p.m. US Eastern time. It’s entitled “Embedded Librarianship: Connecting the Dots, and Avoiding the Pitfalls.” For more details on the agenda and registration, please visit http://tinyurl.com/3zhtecm ,

Second, the Special Libraries Association Board of Directors approved the formation of an Embedded Librarians Caucus at its May meeting. Over 100 SLA members signed the petition to form the caucus! We’ll hold a kickoff meeting at the upcoming SLA Annual Conference on Tuesday, June 16 at 9:45 a.m. All members and prospective members are invited to attend!

Solo Librarians and Embedded Librarians

April 4, 2015 by

A quick check indicates I’ve never blogged about solo librarians — an omission I’m now about to rectify.

Solo librarians, of course, are the only librarians in their organization. It might be a small law firm with just one librarian, or a small corporation, or even a unit — perhaps an R&D lab — in a large organization with no centralized library and no mechanism of communication and collaboration among librarians who are dispersed around the enterprise.

The question arises, what’s the difference between a solo librarian and an embedded librarian. It’s a great question, and it came up again last week in the context of the petition drive to start an embedded librarians caucus in SLA, which already has a Solo Librarians Division.

Here’s my answer:

Think of a Venn diagram with two partially intersecting sets. Some solos are embedded (more and more these days, I estimate) and some embedded librarians are solos.

That is, many solos function in close, collaborative working relationships with others in their organizations, and they have the characteristics of embedded librarianship that I’ve written and spoken about. But, although declining, there are still people who are the only librarian in the organization, who still function primarily as custodians of resources and answerers of ready reference questions; they are equally accessible to everyone and they are not closely collaborating with anyone. These solos do not fit the definition of embeddedness.

Take the other case. Many embedded librarians are organizationally attached to centralized library organizations, though they may spend their days away from the library and other librarians. They may have offices with the groups they are embedded with; they spend most of their time in collaboration with the teams whose work they are participating in. This matrixed organization is the model at MITRE, where I used to work; it’s written up in a couple of the case studies from my SLA-funded research; and it’s the predominant model in higher education. So, these librarians are embedded but they are not solos.

I think these will continue to be two distinct categories of librarians, though I’m personally not so optimistic about the prospects of solos who don’t develop the collaborative working relationships that characterize the embedded model. I think what we will see is more solos who are embedded and more networks of librarians who are embedded with units and work groups but also maintain connections with their peers across the enterprise.

By the way, we’ll be closing the SLA petition drive on April 10. SLA members, sign up now at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/embeddedlibrarianscaucus to become a founding member!

Petition Drive Underway

March 20, 2015 by

It has just been announced that there’s a petition drive underway to form an Embedded Librarians Caucus in the Special Libraries Association (SLA). If approved, the Caucus will provide an ongoing forum for those interested in embedded librarianship to share knowledge and questions, advance the theory and practice of embedded librarianship, and keep members apprised of new knowledge.

The petition is available at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/embeddedlibrarianscaucus . Please note that you must be a member of SLA in order to sign the petition. I hope readers who are SLA members will sign up, and that readers who aren’t SLA members will give serious consideration to joining SLA and the Caucus.

As a special note, I’d like to add that one of the things that has surprised and delighted me in maintaining this blog is the number of readers it has attracted from all over the world. In that same vein, SLA is an international organization — not just an American or North American one. So I especially hope that readers from all regions will participate in the Caucus. Our aim is to develop a truly international community of those who believe that the embedded model offers librarians a means to increase their value in their organizations, their communities, and society as a whole.

So, please join me in the new Caucus.

 

Caught in the Middle

February 26, 2015 by

I’ve just posted the presentation I gave at the NFAIS Conference on Sunday, Feb. 23. It’s entitled “Caught in the Middle: Librarians, Scholars, and Information Revolutions Today and Tomorrow”. I present a view based on personal experience that greater collaboration between librarians, scholars, and vendors is needed to improve personal information management and the research process. It’s true for me, and I think it’s true for others. That’s not to minimize the obstacles — which would be the topic of a whole ‘nother presentation…

http://www.slideshare.net/davidshumaker/shumaker-caught-in-the-middlefinal

Thank You, ACRL!

January 31, 2015 by

A question that always comes up in discussions of embedded librarianship is, does it work? That is, does it result in improved learning outcomes for students, and / or other improvements in achieving the institution’s mission and goals. Some small-scale assessments and a fair number of positive anecdotes have been published before, but we’ve lacked a large-scale, authoritative study.

Until now.

The Association of College & Research Libraries has just released a report that helps a lot in answering that question. “Academic Library Contributions to Student Success: Documented Practices from the Field”, by Karen Brown and Kara J. Malenfant, is the report of a massive study in which over 70 North American academic libraries participated. If you’re interested in academic libraries, assessment of library services, or both, it’s a must-read.

Here are three of eight project findings listed in the Executive Summary, p. 1-2:

“(3) Students who receive library instruction as part of their courses achieve higher grades and demonstrate better information literacy competencies than students who do not receive course-related library instruction.

(7) Multiple library instruction session or activities in connection with a course are more effective than one-shot instruction sessions.

(8) Collaborative instructional activities and services between the library and other campus units … promote student learning and success.”

These findings beg the question, how do you achieve the ability to integrate instruction into courses, break out of the superficial one-shot approach, and build collaborations across campus?

While there are various options and approaches, my suggestion would be to adopt the embedded service model. It’s by enabling librarians to get out of the library, build relationships, and adopt common tactics with others to achieve institutional goals, that we open up these opportunities for ourselves.

So thank you ACRL, Drs. Brown and Malenfant, for this study!

Embedded Who?

January 27, 2015 by

Some say librarians got the “embedding” idea from journalists. Maybe, maybe not. But in any case, the principle appears to be spreading. Witness this “Hachette Book Group CIO Ralph Munsen wants to move IT to the front office. Early this month, he plans to start embedding IT analysts throughout the firm …”. This comes from the Wall Street Journal’s CIO blog, “Publisher Hachette Plans to Embed IT Across the Business”, by Steven Norton, Jan. 6,  http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/ .

To be sure, there are some differences between the Hachette program and what I advocate for librarians, like their plan to force a 6-month rotation cycle.  However, the general idea and the goal are very similar: to supersede transactional processes with strong, collaborative working relationships, shared understanding, and commitment to organizational goals.

It’s another sign that smart organizational leaders are recognizing the value of cognitively diverse, cross-functional teams. It also reminds us that embedding is not just for librarians; it represents a fundamental shift in organizational structure. Embedded librarians should take heart that what they’re doing is consistent with the larger trend.

The River of Information

December 22, 2014 by

The metaphor of information as a flowing stream has been with us for a long time and seems as powerful as ever.

The other day I read this, by Steven Levy in the May 2014 issue of Wired magazine (p. 104 for my fellow printoholics):

“Ever since Twitter and Facebook debuted their feeds in 2006, the model of continually streaming updates has come to define how we consume information. We’ve grown accustomed to a world in which data flows by us, letting us dip into the stream whenever, wherever, and however we want.”

Levy’s words put me in mind of another passage, written exactly 100 years before by John Cotton Dana (Special Libraries, May 1914, p. 73):

“The proper view of printed things is, that the stream thereof need not be anywhere completely stored behind the dykes and dams formed by the shelves of any library or of any group of libraries: but that from that stream as it rushes by expert observers should select what is pertinent each to his own constituency, hold it as long as it continues to have value to those for whom he selects it, make it easily accessible by some simple process, and then let it go.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. And the river keeps on flowing.


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